How Walter Williams Helped Me Lose a Job
The passing of economist Walter Williams this week is a blow to anyone who cares about free markets and the negative effects of government intervention on human progress. Professor Williams articulated the role of markets, prices, and private property about as well as any economist outside of Ludwig von Mises or Murray Rothbard.
Like Mises and Rothbard, he was uncompromising in his views. Free markets, Professor Williams believed, provided the best way for humans—and especially people born on lower rungs of the economic ladder—to advance materially and in other ways, too, and he never passed on a chance to bring those views to the larger public. While he published in the “scholarly” journals such as American Economic Review, he is better known for his columns and books that dealt with race, discrimination, and economics.
My personal history with Walter Williams goes back to September 1982 at the meetings of the Mont Pelerin Society, which were held at the Intercontinental Hotel in what then was West Berlin. I had won the Olive W. Garvey Economic Essay Contest, entering at the encouragement of William H. Peterson, who became an early mentor for me in learning economics, and especially from the Austrian school.
Professor Williams, his wife, and his daughter (then age seven) attended the meetings, and I took the opportunity to meet him and pick his brain, so to speak. He was tall, imposing, uncompromising—and approachable. Our very first encounter was instructive of the man.
At the opening meeting, we heard speeches by F.A. Hayek and others, and I accepted my award (given by Arthur Shenfield). By the end of the meeting, we were tired (most of us had jet lag) and more than a bit tipsy from all the Rhine wine the waiters were pouring into our glasses. We also were anxiously awaiting the meal that came with the banquet and looked forward to eating whatever cuisine the Germans had prepared for us.
The long meeting mercifully ended, and as they announced that dinner would be served, someone pulled open the curtains on the side of the hall and there stood a long table full of food, with smiling men in chef’s hats standing by. If you wanted to eat, it was “Come and get it.” And we did, sort of.
There was no orderly line, just a crush of people grabbing plates and trying to get whatever they could from the dwindling food supply. Here were people whose academic lives were dedicated to presenting an orderly view of the universe engaged in pushing, shoving, and grabbing in hopes of getting a few morsels of whatever the German chefs had prepared before the platters were emptied. I don’t remember getting much on my plate.
Amid the chaos, I saw Professor Williams nearby and asked him, “Is this anarchy?” (Sorry, Professor Rothbard. I was not yet fully versed in libertarian thinking.) “No,” he replied calmly, ever the teacher, “This is high cost, zero price.” Many people that evening went to bed hungry and a little bit drunk.
Professor Williams and I conversed many times after that and occasionally wrote letters to each other, this being an age prior to cell phones and email. I did not see him in person again until seven years later, and it would be a fateful meeting.
In 1989, I was the executive director of the now defunct Chattanooga Manufacturers Association and our annual meeting was to be held in October. I was looking for a speaker and Tom DiLorenzo, who at the time held the Probasco Chair of Free Enterprise at the University of Tennessee–Chattanooga, presented a solution. Walter Williams was speaking at UTC the same week of our annual meeting, so we asked if he would stay an extra night for a small speaker’s fee ($1,000), and he agreed to do so.
This was quite historic for our association, as no black man ever had spoken to this organization in this forum before, not that Professor Williams seemed to care about his small place in history. Many people that attended were familiar with him through his columns and he gave his standard free market speech, and people received it very well. It was vintage Walter Williams educating people on economic thinking, ever the teacher.
During the Q&A, someone asked Professor Williams about the textile bill (Textile, Apparel, and Footwear Trade Act of 1990) that was being written in Congress, a bill that would have imposed quotas for textile imports, especially from China. For Professor Williams, it was an easy answer and he made clear that he believed free trade was best for our economy even if elements of the textile industry opposed such economic doctrines.
At the time, textiles and apparel were significant in the Chattanooga area. Dan Frierson, the CEO of what was then Dixie Yarns, a large textile manufacturer in Chattanooga, at the time was president of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute and he was a major player in pushing the textile bill. He also happened to be the chairman of our board of directors and, thus, my boss, and he decidedly was not happy with Professor Williams’s statements. Frierson had denounced free trade at every opportunity to speak, and we could see his reaction, and it was not good.
While Frierson never said anything to me about the speech, it was clear that I had fallen from favor and I was not the executive director at the 1990 annual meeting. In the long run, it was the proverbial blessing in disguise, as I would go on to graduate school at Auburn University and follow what had been my dream since I won the Garvey award. Three decades later, the CMA no longer exists, but I am still teaching college economics and teaching the concepts that Professor Williams presented, using his materials on occasion.
When someone of the stature of Walter Williams passes away, one naturally asks about the person’s legacy. What did he leave behind?
For Walter Williams, we see the statements from his colleagues and especially his former students, the numerous students who took his famous graduate class in price theory and the undergraduates being introduced to Economics 101. One of the constant themes I read from comments of colleagues and students is his emphasis upon exactness. Just as he gave me an economic interpretation of the chaos at that fiasco of a dinner in West Berlin, he expected his students and colleagues to explain their statements using precise economic theory and he would accept nothing less.
Because of the dominance of left-wing ideology in higher education, the academy is not producing people like Professor Williams, as the woke mobs have substituted bullying for scholarship. Walter Williams was not easy to bully; his superiors in the US Army found out he could be a formidable opponent. Alex Tabarrok writes:
Walter led a remarkable life, recounted in his autobiography, Up from the Projects. He was arrested for disorderly conduct several times and drafted into the army. He was later court-martialed but, acting as his own attorney, he wins his case. He’s sent to Korea and when asked to fill in a form stating his race he writes Caucasian because the Negros got all the worst jobs. He tells his commanding officer that he has pledged to defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic and that he, the commanding officer, is a domestic enemy of the constitution. He writes to complain to President John F. Kennedy. The army gives him an honorable discharge.
A man with this kind of independent streak, who expects his students to engage in clear thinking and for his colleagues to expect academic excellence from their students and from themselves, is not going to fit well into the current higher education environment. He never ran from racial issues, and because his economic views did not embrace the welfare state and what might be called “liberal” economics, the Left—and especially prominent blacks in the media and in academe—rained invective upon him.
The man who stood up to the white establishment of the army at a time when blacks had little legal protection was called an “Uncle Tom,” a “race traitor,” and worse. The black political establishment in the USA does not treat dissenters well, and because the mainstream media embraces progressivism as its established religion, anyone who is critical of progressive economic and social thinking is shown no mercy. He did not suffer fools, and he considered many of his critics to be fools, not because they “offended him,” but rather because they could not couch their accusations in coherent language of economic analysis.
That Professor Williams was none of the things his detractors accused him of being didn’t matter, given that the current academic climate more resembles Mao’s Cultural Revolution than anything one might expect from a civilized sector of education. Furthermore, we cannot expect the situation on college campuses to improve any time in the near or even far future. Walter Williams passed away at a time when college administrators, faculty, and students have chosen dysfunction over discourse. If he were still living, Professor Williams would have told them that their chosen path heads straight to academic perdition and nowhere else.
Looking back to thirty-one years ago, I have no regrets in having had Walter Williams as our annual meeting speaker. That my superiors didn’t appreciate it and took out their anger on me was the best thing in the long run. I was able to have the career I wanted because he and others like him had cleared a path for people like me.